On Memorial Day weekend in May I made pilgrimage to a family cemetery in southeastern Kentucky.
As we scattered my father’s ashes and brought him home to Crane Creek so he could sleep with his people, a great question arose in my mind.
That question takes many forms but it was best posed by a certain early twentieth-century philosopher from East Texas, the blues singer Blind Willie Johnson:
“What is the soul of man?”
Won’t somebody tell me
Answer if you can
Won’t somebody tell me
Just what is the soul of a man?
I find myself so soul-sick, so soul-starved, so soul-sad here in the year our Lord MMXIX, in the third year of the reign of a Herod with his summer palace.
Thanks to the Social Security system, I’ve been a number since I opened that bank account when I got a paper route at age nine.
Now they’ve made me into an algorithm,
and with all those dental fillings and cardiac stents I’ve morphed into a hybrid kind of iron-man.
Was there ever a more crucial time to ask just what is the soul of man, and I realize that the use of “man” is gender exclusive but Blind Willie Johnson was not, so no offense intended.
Shopping and tweeting, trolls, iPhones and lab clones, auto-correct and one-click. global positioning that keeps us from ever being lost, and from ever finding any place not on their grids.
Just what is the soul of man?
The question takes me back to the Bible, for if we can find some expression, some story, some image, some suggestion there that still 2000 years later rings true, then we at least are approaching the hem of soul’s garment, some speck of the soul of a man.
The Bible talks a lot about soul.
There are more verses than I have time to recite this morning.
As a deer longs for flowing streams,
so my soul longs for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
These things I remember as I pour out my soul (Ps 42:1-2, 4a).
What is this thirsty place inside us?
Bless the Lord, O my soul (Ps 104:1).
Hear O Israel: the LORD is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul (Deut 6:4).
Remember Jesus’ unanswered question?
What doth it profit a man—a woman, or beautiful hybrid-gendered creature—
to gain the world and lose his soul (Mark 8:36).
And from Genesis:
Then the LORD God formed Adam from the dust of the ground,
and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life;
and Adam became a living soul (Gen 2:7).
The word in Biblical Hebrew that we translate as “soul” is nefesh. Nefesh.
Nefesh is related to the word for throat.
Nefesh is where you breathe, nefesh is where you sing, nepesh is where you taste.
Soul breathes, soul sings, soul tastes.
No wonder we use the word “soul” with subjects such as music and food.
Soul music, soul food.
God breathed into Adam and he became a living soul. Bless the LORD, O my soul, and as Andre Crouch sings, “let all that is within me bless his holy name.”
You see, if soul is related to breath, then that means two things.
First, that soul is something we all share, of equal rank, just as we all inhale a common air. Soul, breathing is free to all and unties us all in common need.
Second, breathing is the exercise that connects our inside with the outside,
atmosphere with inner sphere,
body and world,
us and all.
Singlesoul merges with everysoul so that all that hath life and breath might praise Oversoul.
My soul doth magnify the Lord.
Soul butters the bread of life and sweetens its tea.
Soul is breath: where atmosphere meets inner sphere so that naturally, unconsciously we experience the unity at the heart of everything.
When you activate your soulcraft and breathe deep, you make unfiltered contact with the More and the All and the Other.
Emily Dickinson called herself an “inebriate of air.” To live from your soul is to inhale the laughing gas of the world that God created in love, for love.
Soul knows that life is good, but not because that is what the words on a t-shirt say.
Life is good, finally but not always, because the final months and years of my father’s life were good for no one but the health care industry as his body, gripped by the trembling palsy, gradually, inexorably froze from the outside in.
Life is good, just barely, and only because of that spark of soul that the Creator passed through his finger into Adam’s core, like in that famous picture.
Let all that hath breath praise the LORD, as the lungs of the world in the rain forests exhale oxygen, as the rocks and trees sing out.
Soul activation allows us to participate in the underlying unity of all things.
O, how the soul sings. That’s why we associate it most with music, soul music. Soul allows a man in chains to sing, “Let that Midnight Special shine its everliving light on me.”
The soul cannot be shamed;
Soul lives outside the jurisdiction of committees and grades and ranks. Soul answers only to the Judge of the Quick and Dead.
Soul people recognize each other as sisters, as brothers, as soul-mates
The soul cannot be bought, but as Jesus told us, it can be sold.
There are art stores and music stores and book stores, but there are no soul stores.
You cannot take soul lessons, you cannot get a learnéd degree in Soul.
Recently I came across a passage in Frederick Douglass’s 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave.
One of American slavery’s crimes against humanity was constant surveillance by work bosses and overseers.
The work bosses were alert to any mumblin’ word of complaint or rebellion, the work bosses monitored every expression.
Of course, this backfired and led to the creation of the incredible vernacular code of African American slang, in which “bad” meant “good,” a woman was a “Chick,” and a man was a “cat.” They could hold a conversation without the overseers understanding a thing.
And the surveillance backfired as the community created the beautiful double-code of the blues and spirituals. “Oh,” those dumb cracker overseers thought, “they’re singing about going o’er Jordan.” Yes, but they were also singing about escaping over the Ohio.
“Oh,” those dumb cracker misogynists thought when they heard the men singing the blues, “they’re singing about that mean ol’ woman who betrayed them and broke their hearts.” No, they were singing about those mean ol’ slave owners and their lackeys.
Douglass explains all that, but what stopped me in my tracks is a passage where he talked about those rare moments a slave had to himself, to herself. He described solitary journeys from one part of the plantation to another where for a brief moment in what Douglass referred to as “the piney woods,” a man or woman was totally alone. And, Douglass wrote, in those woods, in those lonesome valleys, those men and women sang.
And I quote:
They would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They could compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune.
As Douglass wrote, the world can hardly bear the miracle, the tragedy, the irrepressible humanity of those songs. That is soul music.
I am not saying that soul music or soul is a black thing or a Jewish thing or an Irish thing or Appalachian thing.
But I saying that you are more likely to hear soul music when people have to make their art from scratch, not from European-scored treble and bass clef notations. Soul cannot be curated, collected, museum-ed, mass-produced; soul can only be inhaled from the very breath of God, from the Holy Spirit.
Spring up, O well within my soul!
Let our souls draw buckets of country soul straight from Jacob’s well. Drink of that living water Jesus offered to share with a woman from Samaria.
Seek soul, drink soul, sing soul.
Seek that song the forest heard, one stanza of which must have been “How can we sing King Alpha’s song in a strange land?”
to move through the world ever alienated from sacred befuddlement upon encountering anything he didn’t plan or arrange?
What doth it profit a man
never to stumble upon
the sacred connection with everything that hath breath and life?
When the grid goes down, as it did last night in midtown Manhattan,
when the oceans pull out of the boundary treaty worked out between them and the shoreline because of the land-dwellers violations of covenant, when all that crap we own and false comfort we’ve become addicted to fails to satisfy our soul hunger,
When the grid comes tumbling down,
you’ll look to the rock to hide your face,
but the rock gonna tell you no hiding place.
No network manager is gonna reboot you,
no Marvel super heroes are gonna to rescue you,
no mega-evangelists in skinny jeans are gonna save you,
no titans of business or medicine or learning who so thickly paint coats of so-called expertise onto the blank wall of their anxious ignorance are gonna have a clue, there’s no drive-thru where you can order a jumbo box of soul.
To save your soul you’re gonna need some soul.
Not store-bought eau de soul, but the real dope, that bootlegged moonshine soul cooked up at home with your stories and songs and people. With your faith, with your Bible, with your congregation, with your God.
Don’t traffic in photo-shopped friendship. Believe in the power of face to face, hand to hand, the power of soul—breath to breath.
I’m letting you in on a secret; if you activate your soul-song and life-breath you will receive power, the power that the Holy Spirit imparts. Because the soul abides.
I told a lie earlier in this sermon, but I had my reasons: I said that you cannot buy a soul, but you can sell one.
Actually, Jesus talked about “acquiring” a soul in Luke 21:19. It’s a passage where Jesus is warning his disciples that bad times are coming, wars and insurrections, great earthquakes, famines, plagues, dreadful portents, a day when people faint from fear.
Then Jesus tells those who would follow him in the face of such cataclysms:
“by your endurance you will acquire your souls.”
You want to acquire your soul? Endure through suffering. Try and fail and try and fail again. Allow yourself to get lost. Allow yourself to get bored. Repent of expertise and control and productivity measured by markets and confess your utter dependence, keep your eyes open to the ugliness and . . . keep looking for the deepest freshness deep down things.
Bless the LORD, O my soul, and let all that is within me bless his holy name.
Let us pray:
Lord, we’re always entreating you to come be with us, then when you arrive, we’re not at home.
We hereby gather our fractured, distracted selves to answer, like so many biblical prophets, “Here I am.”
We hereby officially recognize the warmth of the sacred core burning inside each other;
in this service we will make eye contact with each other, hear each other sing, savor the beautiful human smells, taste the cheeks, and touch each other with careful affection.
Thank you for creating us as living souls, and grant us the courage to stand on the platform of your gift of life and dive deep into the pool of soul.